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Troubleshooting and Repairing your Water Heater

Updated Apr 4, 2018
By Gary Sprague

A water heater is one of the most indispensable appliances in a home, as anyone who has gone a day without hot water can attest. Water heaters last an average of 5 to 10 years, and like all equipment they develop problems from time to time. So what can you do if your water heater  stops working properly? Some problems you can troubleshoot yourself, while others will require the attention of a professional contractor.

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First Steps

If you aren’t getting hot water from your water heater, here are two troubleshooting steps you should take before doing anything else:

  1. Check that the water shut-off valve to the water heater hasn’t been accidentally turned off. The valve is normally located in the cold water pipe leading to your water heater.
  2. Check for a bad fuse or tripped breaker in your main electrical panel. If you have a gas, propane or oil-fired water heater, make sure that you haven’t run out of fuel.

These are simple steps, but they can save you an embarrassing and potentially expensive service call. Here are a few other common water heater problems:

Water Temperature Problems

A faulty water heater thermostat can cause the water to be too hot or too cold. If this is the problem, the thermostat will need to be replaced. A bad heating element can also cause little to no hot water. A multimeter can be used to test an element. If the element is bad, it can be replaced by turning off the electricity, disconnecting the wires to the element, turning it out of the water heater and replacing it with a new one. Just be certain to drain some water from the tank first. On a gas water heater the pilot may simply need to be relit, or the problem could be a bad thermocouple.

Smelly or Dirty Water

Bad smelling or rust colored water are usually signs of a bad anode rod. A water heater’s anode rod is designed to prevent the tank from corroding. When the anode rod goes bad, it can affect the smell and taste of the water and shorten the life of your water heater. Flushing the unit will sometimes help, but usually the anode rod will need to be replaced.

Noisy Water Heater

Water heater noise could be caused by the elements heating up, or it could be a sign of sediment build-up. Flushing the tank out can sometimes help with this problem. Be sure to turn off the electricity to an electric tank before flushing it to prevent burning out the heating elements.

Water Leaks

If there is water on the floor under your water heater, check the water pipes and valves above the water heater first, as the leaking water may have run down. Also, check the threads around heating elements. If the water heater itself is leaking, the unit has corroded and will need to be replaced.

Maintaining your How Water Heater

Conventional water heaters are a relatively simple appliances -- they heat water using electricity or a burner, and then they store that water for later use. As a result of this simplicity, some of the most common problems can become do-it-yourself projects. Alternatively, you hire an HVAC contractor or even your local gas or fuel oil company to solve problems. As with most appliances, proper maintenance can avoid most water heater problems.

No Hot Water

If you are not getting hot water and you have an electric unit, you may just need to reset or replace the thermostat. If you have a gas-powered unit, the gas line or pilot light may be to blame. You may need to clean the gas burner or have the thermocouple unit replaced. This is a job for a qualified HVAC Contractor -- don't try this yourself!

Leaky Water Heaters

Leaky water heaters are a major problem because even a small leak can soak into your particleboard sub flooring and carpets, causing decay and mold. An improperly installed water heater can also emit fire or dangerous toxic fumes that can be hazardous. The pipe connections, valves, and the area below the unit should be checked for leaks. The floor under the water heater can be protected from water damage if it's covered with water sealant. Turn off the heat source to the water heater while doing this to avoid a fire hazard.

Relief Valve Maintenance

Once a year, the temperature/pressure relief valve should be tested. If you don't have one, install one. When the valve handle is pushed up or pulled down, water should come out of the overflow pipe to show that the valve is okay.

Drain Faucet Maintenance

A bucket of water should be drained from the drain faucet at the bottom of the water tank regularly. This will clear sediments from the bottom of the tank, prevent corrosion, and maintain heating efficiency.

Annual Pipe Connection Maintenance

Each year, you should make sure the pipe connections on a gas or oil-fired heater are secure and free of rust or corrosion. Check the external insulation on the water heater on a quarterly basis to see if it's in position. It should not block the combustion air inlet or exhaust vent.

Tankless Water Heater Maintenance

The temperature gauge on the boiler of your tankless water heater should be checked once every six months and the temperature set correctly. The joints around your tankless hot water mounting plate must be inspected every year -- if there is corrosion or mineral deposit build-up, have your plumber check it.

When You Should Call in the Experts

If you smell gas near a gas water heater, shut off the pilot light, close the gas shutoff valve, and call your gas utility for help. If you have an electric water heater, don't work on it if there is a puddle on the floor near the heater. Shut off the circuit to the water heater and call your plumber or HVAC contractor.

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